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White House has names for new U.S. Attorneys in Illinois

In March, Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (left) and Tammy Duckworth accused Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. (right), of breaking with what had been a bipartisan Illinois tradition spanning GOP and Democratic presidencies to forge agreement on potential nominees before recommendations are sent to the White House. | Sun-Times file photos

WASHINGTON — The White House told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday that Rep. John Shimkus, the top Illinois Republican in Congress, sent President Donald Trump recommendations for U.S. Attorneys spots in Illinois — a move Shimkus made without consulting with the Illinois Democratic senators, whose support is needed even for a hearing.

But the Trump White House, recognizing the political reality ignored by Shimkus — that Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth have the power to block Trump nominees from a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing — is apparently doing its own consulting when it comes to Illinois.

“Congressman Shimkus sent recommendations for U.S. Attorney and all interviews for that position are scheduled to take place in the next couple of weeks,” a White House spokesman, who did not want to be named, told the Sun-Times.

The source said the Department of Justice will be conducting interviews of the Shimkus prospects and did not know if Shimkus submitted names for all three open spots in Illinois, including a potential replacement for Chicago’s former top fed, U.S. Attorney Zach Fardon, who left office two months ago amid a Trump Administration purge.

Even though Trump, as president, sends a nomination to the Senate, Durbin and Duckworth hold power in the selection because the Judiciary Committee gives home state senators the ability to virtually veto a nominee under its “blue slip” tradition. Durbin is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Rep. Shimkus is not the only party in touch with the White House and Senators Durbin and Duckworth hold blue slips in the process,” Durbin spokesman Ben Marter told the Sun-Times.

That consultation indicates the Trump White House is aware that Durbin and Duckworth each can invoke their “blue slips” and prevent hearings on nominees for judicial judgeships, U.S. Attorneys and other related appointments.

Durbin and Duckworth sent White House Counsel Donald McGahn a letter on May 2 informing the White House that “we intend to establish Senate screening committees to assist us in reviewing and vetting candidates” for federal judges, U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshal jobs in Illinois, positions requiring Senate confirmation.

And on Tuesday, Durbin and Duckworth announced that they formed three screening committees for Illinois.

The letter was in effect an implied threat to block Trump nominees in Illinois if the Democrats don’t have any say before Trump even sends an appointment to the Senate for confirmation.

What is not known is how Shimkus is handling screening or considering contenders. Shimkus’ spokesman did not respond to multiple email and phone messages seeking comment Tuesday.

Fardon quit in March after Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked for the resignations of 46 U.S. attorneys who were appointed during former President Barack Obama’s administration.

The matter over U.S. Attorneys in Illinois has been simmering for months, starting in March, when Duckworth and Durbin accused Shimkus of breaking with what had been a bipartisan Illinois tradition spanning GOP and Democratic presidencies to forge agreement on potential nominees before recommendations are sent to the White House.

A day after Fardon’s resignation, tension between the senators and Shimkus became clear when the senators wrote a letter complaining that Shimkus was breaking with bipartisan tradition in searching for a new U.S. attorney.

Trump, as does every president, has the sole power to nominate; however, a person opposed by a senior home state lawmaker from the president’s party is not likely to be nominated.

Shimkus’ staff has been insisting that Shimkus wanted to lead a “bipartisan, collaborative and inclusive” search for a U.S. attorney who will “root out corruption and stop the violence in Chicago.” In March, Shimkus had already received input from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner, and his spokesman said he planned to “listen to a lot of people.”

However, there has been little word of progress in the search for Chicago’s next U.S. attorney amid the ensuing — and politically rocky — last few months in Washington.

Now, Durbin and Duckworth say they’ve established screening committees “to assist the senators in evaluating candidates for vacant U.S. attorney, U.S. marshal and federal judgeship positions in Illinois.”

They will “review candidates identified by the Trump Administration and the Illinois Republican congressional delegation” for those jobs.

The senators gave White House counsel a heads up in their May 2 letter.

“We believe these measures will strengthen the nominee selection process and help all Illinoisans feel confident in the outcome of this process,” Durbin and Duckworth wrote in the letter.

Seidel reported from Chicago.